The season comes down to this. Conference titles. Rose Bowl bids. Whichever team wins Saturday will have a chance at both. The loser will have to settle for a different New Year’s Day bowl game. Plus, the Gophers will want to keep Paul Bunyan’s Axe in Minnesota for one more year. Prediction: Gophers 30, Wisconsin 24
THREE BIG STORY LINES
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Weather will be a major factor Saturday. The Twin Cities already has piles of snow on the ground from a midweek storm. Another couple of inches could come early Saturday. Precipitation can limit the passing game. The Gophers excelled on the run in a snowy game against Nebraska on Oct. 12. But Wisconsin’s best offensive threat is running back Jonathan Taylor.
The Badgers lost in the border battle for the first time in 14 years last season, at their own stadium to boot. They’ll be looking to spoil the Gophers’ historic success, snatching away a championship at the last moment.
Playing for O’Brien
Gophers holder Casey O’Brien had surgery Wednesday to remove a spot in a lung. The four-time cancer survivor won’t play Saturday, and his team could derive extra motivation to win for a beloved teammate.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Wisconsin’s Taylor vs. Gophers defense
Taylor, a Heisman Trophy contender, leads the nation in scoring with 22 touchdowns and is second in rushing with 153.2 yards per game. He’s run for three consecutive 200-yard games in November. The entire Gophers defense will have to focus on limiting Taylor, from the defensive line not allowing any holes to the linebackers making their tackles.
Wisconsin linebacker duo vs. Gophers offensive line
Badgers linebackers Chris Orr and Zack Baun are midseason All-Americas, with 11 and 9.5 sacks, respectively. As a whole, the Badgers rank fourth in the nation with 39 sacks this season, including six games with at least four. The Gophers offensive line has been up and down. But at its best, the six-man rotation has looked impenetrable.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
51.7%The rate at which the Badgers convert third downs. That ranks sixth in the FBS, while the Gophers rank fourth at 51.9%. The Gophers have said not allowing Wisconsin short third-down attempts will be a key to stopping the Badgers.
THE GOPHERS WILL WIN IF …
Fate decrees it. This season has been unexpected and breathtaking from start to finish. Maybe no one but the Gophers themselves would have picked them to be in this spot in the regular-season finale. If it’s meant to be, it will be. But the Gophers, of course, do control their own destiny.
WISCONSIN WILL WIN IF …
Taylor has another 200-yard game. He is possibly the best running back in the country right now. If weather conditions put the onus on him, he could easily rise to the occasion. And he’ll want to end his likely last college season on top.